Wednesday, 29 July 2020 21:50

REMEMBERING A FRIEND: Tim White recalls travels with Andre the Giant during visit to Ellerbe's Rankin Museum

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Former WWE referee Tim White talks about his time traveling with Andre the Giant during a visit to the exhibit at the Rankin Museum of American Heritage in Ellerbe on July 29. Former WWE referee Tim White talks about his time traveling with Andre the Giant during a visit to the exhibit at the Rankin Museum of American Heritage in Ellerbe on July 29. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ELLERBE — "Hi, Boss."

That's how Tim White greeted the life-sized photo of his late friend Andre Roussimoff — better known to the world as Andre the Giant — during a private visit to the Rankin Museum of American Heritage on Wednesday.

Some may remember White clad in the black and white uniform of a referee in the WWE, formerly the World Wrestling Federation.

He was also Andre's travelling companion from the early '80s until the wrestler's death in 1993.

"It was an honor for me ... to become best friends like we did," White said.

White also met up with another old friend, Jackie McAuley, who donated many of the items for the museum's exhibit.

Although they have kept in touch throughout the years, this was their first time seeing each other since Andre's memorial service at the ranch 27 years ago.

ENTERING THE WRESTLING WORLD

A native of Rhode Island, White had no intentions of getting involved in the wrestling business. His original career plan was in law enforcement.

White was awaiting admittance into the FBI Academy after college, which was on hold due to a federal freeze on hiring during the Jimmy Carter administration.

"I'm psyched to go to the FBI Academy, that's my dream," White recalled. "That's what I worked for."

In the meantime, he drove a truck for his brother's business.

One of White's college baseball teammates, Ed Cohen, had started working for the McMahon family, who owned the Cape Cod Coliseum. 

White had been boxing to stay in shape for the academy when he got an invitation from Cohen to come to the coliseum.

He accepted and, while there, met Vince McMahon Jr., prior to his taking over the company.

During a conversation, White says McMahon asked if he wanted to "hit the road and learn the business."

At the time, White didn't know much about the wrestling business.

"I couldn't name five wrestlers," he admitted, but he was familiar with three: Chief Jay Strongbow, Bruno Sammartino and Andre.

"He looked at me and said, 'That's it?' And I think that got me the job, or the offer," White said. "'Cause he didn't' want a fan ... he saw I was pretty sharp."

White said by the time he was called up to attend the FBI Academy, he told them, "No thanks."

He later went on to learn the ropes of being a referee and served as an official for several high-profile matches — including the 1998 Hell in a Cell between the Undertaker and Mankind.

For 25 years, White also owned The Friendly Tap, a bar in Cumberland, Rhode Island, which was featured in several WWE segments.

During his career, White has come full circle. He still works with the WWE, accompanying wrestlers at autograph signings and comic conventions.

He says he has friends who went on to be chiefs of police, agents with the FBI and Secret Service and other fields of law enforcement who called and said, "You're the luckiest man...I'm watching TV, there you are ... in Spain or Germany, Madison Square Garden, and I'm stuck in this craziness of law enforcement."

"I said, 'I'm lucky. What can I tell ya?'"

MEETING THE BOSS

White's introduction to the Eighth Wonder of the World was memorable — but not exactly friendly.

His first job in the company was in merchandising, driving the van and selling T-shirts photos on the circuit.

White recalls they were at a show where Strongbow was in charge and the wrestler had him make copies of the card — which included the line-up of the matches — and told him to post them up in the locker room.

When White walked in, he said Andre was playing cards with Tito Santana.

"I'm green as can be and don't know the locker room is off-limits unless you're a wrestler or a referee," he said. "Tito looked up at me, like, nervous — 'What are you doing kid?'"

As White started looking for a place to tape the card to the wall, he heard the deep voice of the Giant rumble, "Get out."

He looked back and, again, Andre told him to get out.

"I said, 'Well the chief told me ...'" he continued. "All of a sudden he pushed the table, almost knocked Tito on the ground, and stood up, 'I said get out!"

"I looked back ... and almost soiled myself."

White said after the first meeting, "it all went great from that day."

Tim White shows an old photo of himself with Andre the Giant during a trip to Los Angeles.

TRAVELING THE WORLD WITH THE 8TH WONDER

Before White joined the scene, he said former wrestler Arnold Skaaland traveled with Andre.

"Arnie kinda vouched for me, he said, 'He's a good kid,'" White recalled. "And Andre didn't let anyone in until he figured you out. But he would watch me."

Finally, White said, he got "the big wave."

"They were sitting at the bar, waved me over. 'Sit down, boss,' he said. "Have a drink with us.' We started talking, having a few laughs and I was under his umbrella ... and we went from there."

Travelling, for Andre, was a challenge because of his size.

White said he would call the airlines ahead of the flights to request that the divider be taken out of the two first-class seats reserved for Andre while he sat in coach.

“He would just adjust to it — because he had to,” White said. “You can’t go out in the world and complain about it every day.”

Complaining is something White said the Giant never did, even with the pain he was in.

“I never had a bad day, ever, with him.”

White told Brett Webb, president of the museum's board, that he always gets asked about the infamous drinking stories, but doesn't like to talk about them.

He said being on the road every night, staying in the hotel room was like being in a jail cell, so they would go out to the local bars.

"Andre could drink whatever he wanted to," he said. "Was I with him? Yes. Could anyone drink with him drink for drink? Not a person on earth."

But that didn't stop some from trying.

"They'd come into the locker room the next day for their matches ... they looked like death warmed up," White recalled. "Andre would be sitting there playing cards ... and he'd look up, 'Hey boss, we go out again tonight.' You should have seen the white flags going up."

White said he once joined Andre on a trip back home to France to join the family for Easter dinner.

White said he even went to England the first week Andre was on the set of “The Princess Bride,” where he played the role of the lovable giant Fezzik in the film directed by Rob Reiner and written by William Goldman. Goldman, who wrote the novel in 1973, said in the introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of the book that as soon as he saw Andre wrestling on TV, he found his Fezzik.

However, White wasn’t with Andre when he died.

“The last time I did see him, when I drove off the ranch I pulled over on the side of the road and cried, ‘cause he looked in so much pain,” White recalled. “He didn’t look good.”

McAuley added that Andre had a gray tint to his skin.

When Andre’s father died, he flew back to France to attend the funeral.

“When Frenchy called me, I thought because of the way he looked, ‘Oh God,’” White recalled. “He (Frenchy) goes, ‘I got bad news’ — you know how your heart sinks — I go, ‘Oh no,” he goes, ‘No, no, it’s not Andre, his dad passed away.”

White said he would have gone with him to help him out if he hadn’t been scheduled to referee at the time.

About a week later, he said Frenchy called him back crying.

“He goes, ‘He’s gone.’ I said, ‘Who?” He said Andre.”

White was at the Friendly Tap and says he dropped the phone and went numb after hearing the news.

A BRAIN FOR THE BUSINESS

Although Bobby "The Brain" Heenan was billed as Andre's manager in the mid-'80s, including during the historic match with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III at the Pontiac Silverdome, the Giant was quite "The Brain" himself.

Both McAuley and White remarked how smart and self-educated Andre was — especially when it came to the wrestling business.

"(He was) sharper than anyone would ever think," White said.

"And totally observant of every detail," McAuley added.

As they traveled from city to city, White said Andre could recall the details, including the card and attendance, of the last time they were there.

He added that there was no need for GPS, because Andre remembered directions.

"Take a left here, boss," Andre would say while on the way somewhere.

"How do you remember that?" White would ask.

Even in the ring, White said Andre was "brilliant."

"Everyone thought because of his size, that's all he had to do was show up," White said. "He got it, always had it. And the ones that he felt worthy enough came under his learning tree and he'd guide them."

In the locker room, Andre was known as "the Boss."

"There's only been one Boss," White said. "The reason for that wasn't because of his size or that he could take you out or that he could tell someone 'Fire the guy.' It's because they knew he was all business — and fun.”

Andre also had a great sense of humor, White said, and was known for pranking other wrestlers.

He even had a nickname for White: Timber.

White said Andre got along with most of the other wrestlers, including the Calgary-based Hart family.

One item in the museum’s exhibit is a “get well” card drawn by Bret Hart and signed by the Boss’ wrestling family on the back.

White said it was the first time he had seen it.

“Everybody loved him,” he said.

However, he wouldn't go into details on those who were on the Giant's bad side.

"They know who they were," he said. "Andre was a good, good judge of talent and character."

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

White said Andre loved traveling everywhere they went.

"But he would light up when we saw on the schedule that he was coming home and to the ranch," he said.

Home, for the last 13 years of Andre's life, was off of N.C. 73, about five miles northwest of downtown Ellerbe.

McAuley and her then-husband, the late Frenchy Bernard — himself a former wrestler and referee — lived on and took care of the ranch for Andre, who spent 300 days a year on the road.

"That was just his favorite place on earth," White said. It was a place the man, who could not hide in a crowd, could get away from everything, relax and be at peace.

“He’d drop those bags, he’d be in his shorts and a T-shirt and sneakers … because once we left the ranch, full-speed ahead again.”

He added that Bronco and Maverick, two Rhodesian ridgebacks, knew Andre was coming as soon as they hit AFJ Ranch Road.

“We’d just get through the gate and they knew he was home.”

McAuley added that when he was home, Andre would say he was going to "walk the dogs," which meant he was going to ride his Honda three-wheeler around while the dogs ran in front of him.

"Those dogs worshiped him," she said, adding there were also two miniature dachshunds that would jump up on the chair with him and watch TV.

Andre also had longhorn cattle on the ranch.

“He loved the animals,” White said.

Webb said he remembered seeing Andre once at Dixie Burger.

McAuley added that the small restaurant would always have iced coffee prepared for him — which was probably the first iced coffee sold in Richmond County.

"It's incredible that he made our little town home and felt so at home here," Webb said.

"And loved it," White added.

Following the museum visit, McAuley and White drove out to the ranch property and met with current owner Kevin Kane.

It was only the second time White had been back since his friend's memorial service. The first time was several years ago following a show in Charlotte.

"It sure does bring back memories," he said, looking out at the property. "I remember it being pasture with the longhorns wandering around."

Admitting the cliche, White said Andre lived every day like it was his last.

“He knew from his size, the business, the travel and everything else that he wasn’t going to be 80 years old bouncing kids on his knee.”

Before saying goodbye to Kane and McAuley, White took one more look around.

"See ya, boss."

Jackie McAuley and Tim White pose in front of the life-sized photo of Andre the Giant.

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 July 2020 23:44